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The Transformative Power of Sacred Art-Making

This article was originally published as “Teaching Western Women an Ancient Tibetan Art and Gaining Wisdom Along the Way” on Buddhistdoor Global on December 4, 2015.

This Buddha has been created by the joint effort of virtual apprentices around the world. Louise says, "The attention given to each stitch has brought my own spiritual practice into new focus, and just like spiritual practice, this too is a continual process towards a deeper refinement."

This Buddha has been created by the joint effort of virtual apprentices around the world. Louise says, “The attention given to each stitch has brought my own spiritual practice into new focus, and just like spiritual practice, this too is a continual process towards a deeper refinement.” (photo by Donna Granata)

When I began teaching Western women the sacred art of Tibetan appliqué in 2008, I thought I was merely teaching needlework, but I had underestimated the power of the Buddhist tradition and transmission. It was my students that set me straight; through them, I discovered the transformative power of this sacred artwork.

Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo participated in the creation of this large appliqué thangka while apprenticing to T.G. Dorjee Wangdu in Dharamsala in the 1990s.

I lived in northern India from 1992 to 2001, where I learned to make silk thangkas under an apprenticeship to Tibetan master craftsmen. A thangka is a rollable wall hanging or scroll depicting a sacred image or spiritual teacher. Most thangkas are painted on canvas and framed in brocade, but I studied a rarer type of thangka in which the images are formed from hundreds of pieces of silk, outlined in hand-wrapped horsehair, and assembled in an intricate patchwork. I first encountered the colors and textures of Tibetan appliqué art in 1992 when I was working as an economic development volunteer for Tibetan refugees. I was mesmerized by the tactile vibrancy of the fabrics and the jigsaw-like arrangemet of elements that pulled pieces into a whole. It brought the imagery of the Buddhist philosophy that I was studying together with a type of handwork and aesthetic that I loved. I immediately began searching for a teacher.

Six days a week for four years, I sat alongside young Tibetans in a sewing workshop just outside the Tsuglagkhang, the Dalai Lama’s temple in McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala. The environment was infused with Dharma, and the sounds of teaching and practice drifted from every window and echoed in every courtyard. Each morning I attended classes in Buddhist philosophy with Tibetan scholars (geshes) before trudging up the steep hill to the workshop, where I stitched thangkas in the afternoon.

Applique master Dorjee Wangdu and his apprentices in Dharamsala in 1993. Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo is the tall one in the back row, the only Westerner and the oldest student in a class of Tibetans.

Applique master Dorjee Wangdu and his apprentices in Dharamsala in 1993. Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo is the tall one in the back row, the only Westerner and the oldest student in a class of Tibetans.

I absorbed the Dharma this community breathed until it emanated through my fingers into the thangkas I stitched. Nevertheless I was far from being a Dharma teacher, and was an inconsistent meditator. After leaving India and taking up teaching, I told prospective students that I would teach them the stitching techniques required for thangka creation, but not the spiritual practice or philosophy associated with the art, and very little iconography. I would tell them not to expect spiritual illumination from me—they must seek that elsewhere. Yet, little did I know that each line and stitch of this artwork carries the light of the Buddhas and of generations of artists and practitioners. One can’t escape the deeper lessons that have been woven into the fabric of this lineage.

Chenrezig silk thangka by Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo

Chenrezig silk thangka by Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo

I was living in Italy, married, and making thangkas on commission, when one day in early 2008 I was contacted by an American woman in France called Louise. A practicing Buddhist and a trained costume designer, she had returned to France after many years of following her husband’s career from country to country while raising their young children, and was now seeking an occupation, something meaningful to do with her energy and time. When she first saw the silk thangkas on my website, it struck her as a natural coupling of her creative background and her spiritual practice—the same connection I had felt 16 years earlier when I first entered a Tibetan appliqué studio in India—and she felt compelled to learn the art. My association with Louise led me to draw up a course of instruction in the techniques of Tibetan appliqué and eventually sparked the creation of the Stitching Buddhas Virtual Apprentice Program,* a distance-learning course through which my students can learn the techniques of Tibetan appliqué from written instruction, videos, Skype calls, a private online forum, and an annual retreat.

Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo wraps horsehair with silk thread and stitches it to silk brocade according to ancient Tibetan tradition.

Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo wraps horsehair with silk thread and stitches it to silk brocade according to ancient Tibetan tradition.

Working with a needle and thread reawakens our tactile intelligence. Our eyes and ears are not the only receptors for learning; the rational mind is not our only mode of understanding; and the voice is surely not our only instrument for communicating. Although in the 21st century our range of manual engagement has largely been reduced to tapping plastic keys and swiping touch-screens, we can also perceive, learn, and communicate through our fingers. People who knit or quilt or work on a potter’s wheel have experienced the mindful quality that can arise from slow, deliberate movement and tactile sensation. Creating something by hand slows down the busyness of life—if only momentarily.

Beyond this, the thread becomes a metaphor for life. You see how things become tangled when you don’t pay attention. You see where perfectionism trips you up, where you are afraid to move forward, and how, sometimes, the more effort you exert, the worse things become. Sometimes gentleness and a relaxed approach are needed. These patterns become evident in the stitching, and such awareness filters into other areas of our life.

Students learn ancient textile art with the help of modern technology.

Students learn ancient textile art with the help of modern technology.

The Tibetan appliqué tradition flows from an ancient spiritual lineage of artists, teachers, and practitioners who have created and used the images as part of their Buddhist practice. When we stitch, we receive their transmission through our fingers. People often ask if I meditate while I stitch. I say that stitching IS meditation. The Tibetan word for meditation—gom—literally means “to familiarize oneself.” Through meditation, we familiarize ourselves with desirable mind states—expansive, loving, generous, imperturbable mind states—in an effort to make them habitual. When we stitch a thangka or even a lotus flower, we are in the presence of enlightenment. We familiarize ourselves with enlightened beings and therefore with the highest qualities of our own nature. The images in our hands symbolize the clearest, highest, best parts of us and of humanity. Stitch by stitch, we allow these qualities to fill us.

Students in the Stitching Buddhas Virtual Apprentice Program learn the fundamental steps of Tibetan appliqué while stitching Lotus flowers. The Lotus represents enlightenment, arising unstained from the mud of the world.

Students in the Stitching Buddhas Virtual Apprentice Program learn the fundamental steps of Tibetan appliqué while stitching Lotus flowers. The Lotus represents enlightenment, arising unstained from the mud of the world.

Most of my students, whom I call the “Stitching Buddhas,” are women in their 50s and 60s with a strong interest in Buddhism. They are well educated, many have worked in healing professions such as nursing, medicine, social work, and psychotherapy, and many are mothers of grown children. They come to the practice with an awareness of limited time. Some face diminishing eyesight or challenges to their manual dexterity. Some have no sewing experience at all. And while they’re not preparing for a career in thangka-making, they are seeking to live their lives meaningfully and happily, and to leave something beautiful in their wake.

Buddhism encourages us to recognize our good fortune and to use this precious human life well. Human rebirth is rare and hard to come by. With gratitude in her heart, each Stitching Buddha stitches her own response to the sumptuous question posed by the American poet Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Tools of the thangka stitching trade -- horsehair, silk, and inspiration

Tools of the thangka stitching trade — horsehair, silk, and inspiration (photo by Doug Ellis)

 
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My Guiding Principles (today)

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At the Author 101 conference in Los Angeles last week, I was struck with rare clarity about my personal guiding principles. I’d like to share them with you.
The list is probably not complete, and I certainly don’t always look like I’m living by these principles. But these are my aims, my intentions and, really, a good indicator of how I view the world:

  • Life is a great adventure. (Journey widely and well.)
  • See beauty everywhere.
  • Delight in everything.
  • Practice knowing nothing for sure. (Nothing is as it appears anyway.)
  • Be curious.
  • Be kind.
  • Love.
  • And whatever you do, don’t (ever) postpone joy!

What are YOUR guiding principles?

 
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Development of a Thangka Artist – Donna Granata interviews Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo for Focus on the Masters

What a team Donna Granata has gathered at Focus on the Masters!

Such meticulous attention to quality on every level. And what a joy to speak with Donna about my work and life. I’ve long been a supporter of FOTM but now, having gone through the documentation process myself, my support and admiration have increased exponentially.

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It was a magical evening. The room was filled to capacity — and filled with love. Held by all that love, I wasn’t even nervous as Donna and I began our conversation!

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Top-notch sound engineering, lighting, and cinematography. It’s a TV-interview setup with four cameras — one on Donna, one on me, one on the stage with both of us and the artwork… I’m not really sure where the fourth camera pointed!

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There was also a slide show on the big screen, showing images to support our conversation. These images were culled from the hundreds (thousands?) that are now in FOTM’s archive.

It was hard to edit and we had to leave out several stories that would have been fun to tell. But who can recount all the pivotal moments of their life in one hour? We stuck to what was most relevant to the art and of most interest to the audience. Whole decades and countries (sorry, Italy) didn’t make the cut!

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My mom is an artist, who sculpted me into existence (pictured below sculpting a bust of mother and child while pregnant with me)…

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I grew up in a mixed-religion family, exposed to various world views from a young age and resonating with Eastern spirituality from the moment I met it.

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Grateful to have inherited an abiding joy that, though sometimes hidden, always returns.

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People appreciated my sharing about my struggle with compulsive hair pulling, skin picking, and nail biting. Everyone has something!

And I’ve seen how the meticulous perfectionism inherent in mine (misdirected though it may be) is the same energy that makes it possible for me to wrap horsehair and stitch silk. This seems to have touched many people deeply and inspired conversations around dinner tables after the interview.

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Of course, there was lots of talk of India — my apprenticeship, meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and the everyday experience of living there.

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Briefly traveling through history and touching on examples of silk thangkas in Tibet and at the Norton Simon Museum, we reached my nearer past and present — with its exhibitions, Stitching Buddhas teaching program, and Threads of Awakening Weekly Wake-Ups.

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Linda Carson and Michael Rohde generously sponsored my documentation.

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And Paula Spellman hosted a celebratory AfterGLOW, with yummy India food.

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Thank you to everyone who helped, supported, and attended the Spotlight interview!

The short video below gives you a feel for the work of Focus on the Masters. I’m so grateful to be part of the Focus family, touched by the work they do to recognize artists and bring their gifts to a broader community.

 

I look forward to the day when I’ll be able to share the video of my own FOTM Spotlight interview with you. Give at Indiegogo to help us get there!

 

 
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Archival quality: Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo is being documented by Focus on the Masters

Focus on the Masters (FOTM) is a nonprofit art archive and education program that documents, preserves, and presents the works and lives of contemporary artists in southern California.

Founded in 1994 by Donna Granata, FOTM is the only biographical resource of its kind in the country. Its archive includes oral histories, videotaped interviews, photographic portraits and examples of artists’ work. I’m extremely honored to have been selected for inclusion.

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Going through images, stories, and themes of my life and artistic development is a deep and emotional process. Somewhat ironically, it brings up all kinds of old doubts and feelings of inadequacy even while buoying one’s spirit with its honor.

The old “imposter syndrome” rears its head (Did they really mean to choose ME? They must have made a mistake!).

And how we approach anything is how we approach everything (I seemed to start out organized and in control then, before I knew it, I was drowning in a sea of images, overwhelmed and second-guessing each choice).

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But mostly, I’m really grateful for having so much experience watching my mind. I can let the waves crash through and know that the ocean is doing just fine.

Donna is a great support. She clearly LOVES what she does, bringing artists’ stories to life and preserving them for appreciation and understanding in generations to come. Her endless curiosity and love, not only for the process but for each artist, is a gift!

 

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The culmination of the month-long documentation process is a videotaped interview with founder Donna Granata in front of a live studio audience. I’d love for you to be in that audience on March 28, 2015! I hope to share some of my love of life and beauty with you that night…

(And I hope to be able to edit and share the video with more of you in months to come. I’ll need your support for that. Stay tuned for a crowdfunding campaign soon!)

UPDATE

The interview went great! You can now support our campaign to raise funds for editing the video.

Click below for more information

And as a special bonus, Himalaya restaurant in Ventura is offering to donate a portion of its income from supporters of the ARTS to Focus on the Masters on March 31 and throughout the month of April. Just print this flyer, take it to 35 W Main Street, Ventura, CA 93001, and enjoy a delicious meal while supporting artists, arts research, and arts education!

Himalaya FOTM flyer

 
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Stitching Connection into a Lotus Print

Lotus print, matted for framing.

 

A couple months ago, I received an intriguing request from a longtime subscriber to the Weekly Wake-Ups.

She wanted a print of my Lotus flower with a piece of hand-sewn work mounted in the frame.

“A small scrap of fabric with some horsehair cording attached… Something like a relic,” she said.

To me, it would give your energy to the print. Could that be done?

Why not?

Kasia (the woman who made this request) and I are kindred spirits in the crossed paths of fiber and awakening. Kasia’s been on my mailing list since 2010 and I’ve always admired her skill in creating circular textile pieces.

(Cutting and sewing circles on the perpendicular warp-weft of fabric is a challenge. There’s a strong tendency for the fabric to warp and the circle to distort. Kasia clearly has a special relationship with her fabric and has mastered the art of circles! Someday I hope she’ll teach me. In the meantime, her sweet book of textile mandalas inspires on my coffee table.)

So when she asked me to add a hand sewn silk-and-horsehair-cord fragment to a print for her, I immediately thought of circles.

Kasia I Am, LoveLight

Kasia I Am, LoveLight by Kasia

 

As is my tendency, I expanded on the original request…

Not satisfied to  attach just a bit of cord, my mind started to spin connections — between circles and Kasia, Kasia and me, the lotus and the bodhisattva, the circle and the mantra garland on a moon disc at the heart of the deity…

What emerged was this circle of silk, couched with horsehair cord to spell the Tibetan word padma (pronounced pe-ma, as in Pema Chodron).

I stitched horsehair cords to a circle of silk to spell out the fourth and fifth syllables of the mantra of compassion, om mani padme hung. These syllables also mean "lotus." Then I affixed the silk circle to the print with BEVA archival adhesive film.

I stitched horsehair cords to a circle of silk to form the fourth and fifth syllables of the mantra of compassion, om mani padme hum. These two syllables alone, pad-ma, spell the word “lotus.” I then affixed the inscribed circle to the Lotus print using BEVA archival adhesive film.

 

With a vowel marker over the second syllable, it becomes padme (pe-me), the fourth and fifth syllables at the heart of Chenrezig’s mantra om mani padme hum (sometimes translated as “Hail, the jewel in the lotus”). His Holiness the Dalai Lama says the  six syllables taken all together mean that, “in dependence on the practice of a path which is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha.”

 

Lotus print, signed and dated.

Signed and dated.

 

It’s been a joy to create something so personal and so simple, to stitch connections and to know the work will inspire.

I would love to make more of these personalized embellished prints. Let me know if you’d like one.

 

This inspiring picture book of Kasia's "Lovelights" (textile mandalas) can be purchased on Blurb.

An inspiring picture book of Kasia’s “LoveLights” (textile mandalas) can be purchased on Blurb.com.

Kasia (pronounced:  kaa sha) is a fiber artist with a passion for mandalas (circular designs). After surviving a critical illness, Kasia began seeing sacred circles everywhere she looked and soon began to create inspired fiber art based on these visions. She believes her technical skills are a gift and that color has a healing energy that lifts the Spirit within. Using her sewing machine and a variety of fabrics, paints, and threads, she creates colorful circular pieces that draw the viewer in for a closer look. She calls these pieces LoveLights©. Kasia’s mission is to share Love and Light through the work of her hands. 

UPDATE:
Kasia’s sister, a passionate flower lover, ordered her own print embellishment. I LOVED making this little lotus leaf to enhance Mo’s lotus print. She says the lotus provides her daily inspiration. I’m so happy to be a part of that!

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